The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March: Flight

Cover image for K. A. Cook's 'The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March'. Vector/cartoon styling of a creepy folly/shack/treehouse with various gothic accountrements and a crow or raven perched on the roof. Folly is surrounded by more vector images of trees, bushes and scrub set on a cartoony green-hill background. Typeface for author and title credit is white stroked with black. The whole thing is very flat/one-dimensional and looks like a still from an 80s cartoon.Tes Alden, collector of words, rescuer of books and counter of objects, knows ze isn’t like everyone else. This wouldn’t be such a problem if everybody else didn’t struggle with it. Hir mother prays a run-down school in the middle of nowhere may be the best place to stow hir brand of peculiarity, and Tes has nowhere better to go.

Darius Liviu lost a limb and his lover in the hell of Mul Dura. He spent the last three months as a guest of the Greensward, crafting a jointed hand from elf-sung wood and trying to ignore the mutterings of the ghost that haunts him. Now, he returns to the College to take up the second-most dangerous job open to a magician: teaching.

Tes just might be a magician in the making, if ze can survive adventures in alliterative magic and hir own lethal curiosity. Darius, though, keeps a secret that makes the usual problems of overgrown rhubarb, basilisk hordes, verbose eldritch objects, shrieking purple monkeys and cauliflower explosions look like nothing at all.

The elves are coming, and nobody fears elves more than Kit March.

Cover credits: OpenClipart-Vectors (stock images) and VAGDesign (typeface).

Flight: The obligation a rescuer has to a ward gives Darius a sense of purpose and the added benefit of avoiding Amelia, but finding Tes means negotiations with the belt and Tes hirself…

Chapter count: 10 890 words

Content advisory: Ongoing depiction of depression, restricted eating and hallucination. Depiction of cutting that is both blood magic and self-harm, given that it’s Darius. A few moments of executive dysfunction and the belt prompting as a result, although not in a demanding way. Self-harm and violence directed onto a horse and Tes because of meltdown; discussion of violence, overwhelm and meltdown. The anxiety and self-doubt over communication when that ability to communicate, through disability, is impaired.

Note the first: It’s hard trying to run a daily-updating blog and write at the same time. (I haven’t touched my other writing projects for months.) I am thrilled beyond measure that people trust me with their questions, but it leaves me few spoons left with which to write and redraft and redraft and edit. (And my pain has been severe, of course. Not to mention the insomnia.) I suppose we’re going to updating once every two months, as much as I’d like to have it otherwise. It might help to tell you that the next section is written, drafted and only in need of editing. It won’t help to tell you that we’re not even at the middle and I’ve reached 100 000 words two chapter drafts from now.

Note the second: Because I’m still very much trying to figure out how to be a disabled blogger on a busy blog and write occasionally, I haven’t yet figured out how to do anything that isn’t Tumblr. I’m pretty much posting here and running back to queuing stim toy posts. If you want to talk to me about anything, message me or mention me in a post as @eldritchesoterica on Tumblr: I’m more like to see that and respond in a reasonable time frame. Y’know, within a few days (probably) as opposed to never.

Note the third: Speaking as someone with executive dysfunction, it amazes me how in a situation I know exactly what I must do and can do it, but when it comes to everything less urgent, well, everything is harder. I really wanted to write a heroic protagonist who can step into beckoning hell like a bad-arse but struggles when it comes to the steps between “getting out of bed” and “leaving the room”.

Note the fourth: There’s this deep sense of shame connected with that, when I am excessively distressed, angry or frustrated (I know now the word is “meltdown”) I am not in control of my body and less able to effectively verbally communicate. I hit things and scream and swear. (As a kid when upset, I bit other people, and my parents talked at length about their extreme embarrassment and shame, not about why biting someone was the only language I had.) I know that this is Not How People Behave. I actively fear being like this and the judgement it brings, which is why I avoid situations that trigger this degree of feeling. People don’t know just how thin my veneer of control really is, how hard-earnt it is and how deeply rooted it is in self-hatred, fear and my parents’ shame of me. So, I wanted to write an autistic character who gets physically aggressive in meltdown, who self-harms, who hurts others, who loses all language but that of aggression, who experiences all those things I’ve been taught to never be. A character who speaks aloud those moments I’ve been taught to cut out of the story I tell about myself.

Don’t be less. Be here.

The cousins converse in gestures, not words: March jerks his elbow up towards the foyer and Amelia waves her hands in a fluttering gesture before nodding towards the kitchens. Decision made, they stride out of the infirmary side by side, March whistling for the monkeys as he scribbles on his palm.

Darius, forgotten, leans against his pillows. He should, he supposes, be relieved. He doesn’t have to hear what Amelia was going to tell him—not for a while, anyway, since Amelia isn’t the sort of woman to forget. Breathing space.

What he does feel is more akin to a gaping emptiness.

They leave as though he is nothing, and they aren’t wrong. The story is writ in skin—but if that doesn’t make a lie of March and Amelia’s words, Darius doesn’t know what does. He isn’t a teacher; he’s a difficulty. Another problem, just one put aside in favour of something more immediate, and isn’t that what he’s been for a great many people? A problem?

Last night, March seemed set on giving the student over to Darius, even when they first needed to speak about gnomes and the dangers of keeping them behind a door any magic user can unlock.

Today, he doesn’t include Darius in the matter of this student’s vanishing.

He sighs. March will send the monkeys to search the school and grounds, and one of the teachers will check the student’s bedroom for hair or any other personal items they can use as a descriptor. They’ll find hir. Even though Darius can’t help but think that a student smart enough to sneak away from the infirmary, never mind risk the tower, must have considered tracking spells. A week is more than long enough for a curious student to pick up several spells not on the official curriculum. One of the first spells he learnt was the shroud, so why shouldn’t this student, smart enough to block fire spells under duress, have learnt the same?

Ze ran. He doesn’t know hir well enough to know the motivation. If he takes the truth that the College, for all its many imperfections and dangers, is the best space the world offers them, how deep does the agony cut that ze leaves? Amelia and March will have told hir that the fault isn’t hirs alone, that it’s a mistake, that all students make them. Everything he heard from Aysun and Miu, everything true that didn’t touch him, everything that only made seeing his family’s grief cut deeper—everything that saw him look down on the garden below and realise with stunning clarity that he cannot breathe in Siya. He doesn’t know hir, not really. But he does.

“There’s no debt, Liv. Only obligation.”

He shivers and doesn’t turn. How can something that is madness or a spirit mirror so much of Darius’s own thoughts? They’re Efe’s words nonetheless, spoken in those dark, fell moments when life and obligation both became precarious and real, despair and reminder both. One doesn’t just save a life. One can’t just save a life. Saving a life means, always, the ongoing requirement to keep on saving it, for one cannot hold blood and breath in one’s hands without some imparting of responsibility. Efe’s life was Darius’s to keep alive, as much as Darius’s own belonged to Efe—and belongs to many others, including Aysun, Sahar Ehsan, the belt and Amelia.

March’s high-minded handing of said student to Darius means nothing at all.

The agreement was forged in the tower, not the storeroom.

“Belt.” His stomach knots, because fourteen years means that Darius knows only too well how the conversation will end, but all he can do is lay his cards on the table—the only thing anyone can do in dealings with a supernatural entity possessing no lack in self-assurance. “I need to find hir. The student. I need you to allow me this. What do you require?”

“Oh, Dar.” The belt’s breathy sigh smacks as much of despair as exasperation. “Eat something. Take more food with you. Promise me you’ll spend the next three days resting, attempting to eat proper meals and going to sleep at some hour before midnight.”

None of that is outside of his expectations. It isn’t even unreasonable, if he substitutes “going to bed” for “going to sleep”. “Ye—”

“And have three proper conversations with your Doctor March. Conversations where you answer her.”

There, Darius thinks, is the unreasonable part. There’s always an unreasonable part when it comes to the belt. “One conversation.”

“Four.”

Oh, for the love of the silent dead! “You said—”

“Five. Not negotiable.” The belt begins to hum, a pitched ringing that sounds like bees cast from metal and makes Darius want to stuff his ears with lava. How it manages to hum and speak at the same time is an eldritch miracle and one of its more infuriating attributes. “If you want to go after your student—hir name is Tes Alden, Dar—then promise all those things and six conversations with your Doctor March. Swear it. Properly.”

It just waits for him to correct that last number and they both know it.

“I swear,” Darius says, trying his best to speak in a voice that implies he’s more than happy to disobey the sign on the wall and throw the belt into an active volcano, “on the name of Y…” His gorge rises, and he stops, swallows. He’s Malvadan, as claimed by the Sojourner as his Siyan grandmothers, Astreuch grandmother and Malvachi grandfather before him. Claimed and Malvadan by birth or adoption, and one and all they swear on the dead.

Darius swore on a relative’s name, as a child, but it’s something again to swear on the heartname of someone he loved and lost, as much as his religious teachings demand it: nothing is more sacred than leaving someone behind who can speak those names that were never to be spoken. How can something be right and horrific all at once? “…of Yilmaz Efe Kadri. I will … do as you say and have six conversations.”

“Nehir.”

He turns and stares at the headboard.

Efe didn’t speak that name. They swapped scraps of paper, memorised two strange names and cast those words to the fire. Darius lay on his swag that evening and wrote Efe’s name in the dust over and over until he was sure he wouldn’t, couldn’t, forget. He spent half an hour obscuring those marks by firelight with hands and feet and water, just to be sure.

Later, in Laiphu, he wrote Aysun’s name in Hamide Golzar’s ashes and obliterated it the same way, two secrets to guard with his life.

One.

“Very well, my Dar.” The belt sighs again. “This isn’t a good—”

Darius blows a whistle. Three notes. It isn’t a good whistle, since he has no gift for music and control over his lips and tongue has never been simple. There’s no real reason for it to work. Yet even as his exhaustion dims to the point where he leans on his right arm without collapsing, a faint fluttering sound and the stronger scents of magic and musk drift his way, culminating in two monkeys perching on the top of the canvas screen and staring down at him with brown eyes too imperious to possess the usual animal quality of endearing. They stare, Darius thinks, as though he disrupted something important and they aren’t scolding him as a kindness.

“Can you … well, can you ask Susan if it would strap Safi? Please? I’d be grateful.”

The monkeys glance at each other. They seem to have no difficulty in parsing facial expressions, given that they exchange no obvious sign or gesture. Their feet, hands and tails, wrapped around the top frame of the screen, hold still. Yet to some agreement they come, for the closest raises its tiny paws and signs: “I come with. The Alden is not here. Go to the sick garden.” With that, they take to the air, flying over the dividing screens and vanishing into the ether—disintegrating into a fall of purple and grey dust—before they reach the door.

“Stop staring. A magic worker of your experience should know they weren’t real.” The belt sniffs, something best described as the unholy offspring of a blacksmith’s hammer and a boiling kettle. “I’d prefer you to stay here, but if you’re going to be insufferable, do it.”

He’s known for many years that the monkeys are less real entities than they are extensions of the College’s sentience, yes: Darius’s years as a tutor taught him a few tricks about the building that even the most observant of students miss. They’re very good extensions, but extensions just the same—a mimicry of the breathing form.

Never did they dispense with the pretence of physical existence in front of him.

“Dar?”

Later. Darius sighs, wonders where this ranks between sensible and mistake, decides knowing doesn’t help him any and, prepared to pass out at any time, sits up. No, he didn’t expect the belt to do him the kindness of completely negating vertigo, but since complaining might see it decide to reacquaint him with unconsciousness, he says nothing. He just sits with his eyes closed, fingernails digging into the mattress, until the spin isn’t quite so nauseating. Push back covers, wait, swing legs over the side of the bed, wait, carefully slide his feet to the ground without ever letting go of the bed, wait, stand. Breathe. Lying down means repeating the process all over again. Breathe. He wipes his nose on the shoulder of his shift. Grabbing his clothes means letting go of the bed. Forget having a note in his pocket about seizures—no, he needs a note in his pocket about not unbuckling his hand!

His twitching wooden fingers sit atop the pile of clothing.

Summoning his hand through space is simple enough, given the priming spells worked in his own blood. It’s also a waste of strength. Darius exhales, releases the mattress and reaches across to snag his harness and stocking in his fingers, the belt sliding down around his wrist. He doesn’t faint, which he can count an accomplishment, and he even stays standing a heartbeat or two longer than necessary before sitting back down on the bed.

Like everything else, the leather reeks of tea tree and eucalyptus, but not even last night’s dunking wholly erased the musky sourness drawn in by leather in constant contact with sweating skin.

He should be used to it by now.

He still can’t bear it.

A thousand everyday things irrevocably changed for Darius that day in Mul Dura, and dressing isn’t the least of them. It wasn’t simple with two hands, in terms of remembering all that needs doing, and it only became more complex since. He pulls the shift over his head and drops it on the bed. Stocking next, rolled over his stump to limit the sticking, rubbing, itching, blistering and sweating. He grits his teeth while he attempts to find the magical, impossible position of harness that doesn’t press, doesn’t bunch the stocking and doesn’t rub, grunting while he rests his arm on his thighs and works at the straps with his right hand, feeding notches through buckles. One hand attached to his forearm, after several tugs at the stocking underneath, and he gives his thumb a cautious twitch, wincing as the ball scrapes against the socket. Not good, but better than no hand at all.

It still isn’t easy after that. Miu channelled her grief into his clothing: wide or open sleeves, loose armholes, larger-than-needed buttons and buttonholes, no laces for trousers or shirts, all garments he can don with one or two hands. That doesn’t stop the inevitable catching and snagging and yanking at sleeve or hole to pull it over buckles and straps. Hair and boots are hardest: he grabs his curls in his right hand, yanks them over his shoulder, braids the loose end he can see and ties it with the handkerchief. Boots take longer, because first he needs to sit, and then loosen laces, fold down the tongues, slide feet in, pull laces tight and knot—hard enough with two flesh hands!

By the time he stands, waits out the dizziness, blows his nose on the shift and staggers down the line of beds to the washstand beside the water closet to rinse his mouth, he’s tired enough to sleep the day away.

“You could go upstairs and get a handkerchief.”

If the belt makes the mistake of uttering a statement, well, Darius doesn’t have to answer. He sighs and leans against the wall for a moment before reaching for the dressing screen—a fancy wooden thing covered with gilt trim surrounding peeling paintings of figures in Astreuch ballgowns with billowing skirts—and pulling it aside. The door to the infirmary water closet vanished before his time, leaving one dangling hinge and singe marks on the frame, but, this being the College, nobody since has bothered to replace it.

“Dar.” The belt mutters something too quiet for Darius to make out. “What are you planning to do and how are you planning to do it?”

He blinks. The belt has been worn on Darius’s person for the best part of fourteen years. It has witnessed every possible intimate moment from violent vomiting to inconveniently-placed blisters and Darius’s attempt to look at them with two mirrors. “How I’m going to piss?” He braces himself against the wall with his wood hand and handles drawers and embroidered leather penis in flesh fingers. “Why?

“About finding your Tes!”

“Then why wouldn’t you say that?” He doesn’t fall and doesn’t splatter the floor beside the pot, although he overbalances when trying to get everything arranged and whacks his elbow against the peg holding a battered recipe book. Behind him, the pot, chipped and battered, emits bright purple sparks and vanishes the contents into some unknown universe. The reek of magic makes Darius sneeze. “Hands. I…” How is he going to do this? “I have … clothes, boots, my horse.” There’s something more to that list, but he’s all out of place. This isn’t the road with Efe; the list of things Darius did each morning doesn’t exist. This isn’t the Greensward, either, where he had a routine and the chimes of the hour bells—that part of the Greensward, at least, he found quite comforting. “Clothes, horse…”

“Go to the kitchen and get food and water.” The belt sighs. Darius wonders why, of all human gestures, it picked up the habit of frequently imitating this one. “And write a note for your Doctor March.”

He edges around the screen, dunks his right hand and face in the basin, grimaces as water drips down his chin. “That’s a good idea.” He leans down to pluck one of five different pencils from his boots, wipes his hand on his trousers, runs his fingers over his belt—of course, no knife. He’ll need that, too. Note. Rifling through Amelia’s desk will only result in his death, so he crosses the room, leans on the opposite bed and unpins one of the rules sheets. He drops the pin on the bed, turns the sheet over and writes, pressing the sheet against the quilt: I’ll find hir. Have affinity. D. He writes the last in the Siyan style, more flourish than letter. “Thank you.”

Darius leaves the sheet on the bed, turns and heads for the door.

He almost doesn’t feel lightheaded.

“You’re going to take a knife, aren’t you?”

Question. The hallway lies empty save for dust and the rows of portraits, so he steps through and walks as quickly as he can towards the tied-back kitchen doors. “Yes.”

The belt, looped around his wrist and covered by sleeves from shirt and coat, sighs for at least thrice the length of any human exhale. “Is there another way to find hir, Dar?”

“I don’t know hir name. I don’t know how to … to make what I know in words. Script it. This way…” He yawns. “I don’t know another way. It’s my way.”

The kitchen, unusually for this time on a Saturday, is empty. The rack of knives above the window and the long counter, arranged by size, offers several suitable blades, but Darius chooses a fruit knife: silver blade, mother of pearl handle. He wraps it in a tea towel and shoves the knife in his outer coat pocket, and then, with a sense of unease he’ll never voice, stuffs the other pocket with more tea towels before leaning against the bench. Clothes, food, boots, knife, horse…

“Water. Fill a flask. Then get something to eat. Something for Tes, too.” The belt hesitates. “As little as I like to say it … a mug or bowl.”

It finishes with a rambling mutter that sounds rather like “bloody blood witches”.

Darius ignores it in favour of opening cupboard doors. A tall, narrow cupboard by the pantry offers a selection of flasks either crammed on a shelf or hanging from the back of the door on crooked nails, so he grabs one with a strap and carries it over to the table by the door where March keeps covered plates, bowls and baskets housing leftovers, extras and snacks, probably to keep students from going through his pantry. Bread, cakes or muffins, biscuits, fruit, wedges of cheese, sliced meat, a stack of bacon and egg sandwiches on a plate engraved with warming spells, piles of plain crockery plates and mugs.

“Yes, it’s my job, Liv! You’ve taken mine, so let me do this!”

He draws a breath. No. Efe isn’t behind him. Ignore him. Fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty-five, thirty. “Clothes, boots, horse, knife, I…”

“Water, food, mug. Eat something, Dar.”

Water—yes, the pitcher on the table. Darius sloshes water over the tablecloth as he pours. It takes some effort to get both hands working in concert enough to buckle the top closed, but he swings the straps over his right shoulder and scowls when the flask bumps against his hip. Food—he might choke down an apple, so he plucks one of the pocketed tea towels, grabs three green apples, two bread rolls and another muffin and bundles them all in the towel. He ties off the top, wood fingers grinding, and tucks the knot between left thumb and forefinger. “Done?”

“Mug, Dar. And eat.”

“Mug. That’s a good idea.” A pyramid of plain crockery mugs sits at the back of the table, so Darius grabs the closest. Next—yes, eating. Just the thought makes him nauseated. He promised, though, and he knows magic is the only reason he’s upright—a loss he’ll feel when he loosens the belt. He stares at the table, shudders and tries for another muffin. It was so easy, once: bite. Food has never not been a struggle, what with taste and texture and smell, but there were things he could eat, things he enjoyed eating, things he had to eat because hunger cares nothing for the texture of raw rat. Yet the cake feels like uncooked dough in his mouth and his gorge rises with every swallow.

He knows it’s wrong, knows it shows just how broken he is, but how can magic fix this?

He dry-retches before he makes it halfway and, before the belt says anything, smashes the rest of the muffin into the table with his right palm.

“Dar!”

He can’t speak. He just brushes his hand on his trousers, grabs his things and leaves. The kitchen, thankfully, opens out into the garden from a small door opposite the pantry, one that creaks and dislodges a huntsman spider on opening. Outside, facing the front of the house, sits a small, paved space overrun by sourgrass and odd clumps of milkweed. A few seasoning herbs struggle through the mess, and one large planter box, the weed-free group of medicinal plants separated by rows of weathered and labelled stakes, reveals Amelia’s handiwork. A large gorse bush blocks the view to the front meadow, creating a private little haven with which students might have availed themselves if not for the fact that March can watch assignations from the northernmost kitchen window.

Susan waits, its hat pulled forward over its eyes, Safi’s reins held in one green silk-clothed hand. Safi stands, her head raised and ears back, as far away from the monkeys sitting on the planter box as reins and bit will allow her. The bay mare has seen many an odd thing, Darius thinks, but flying purple monkeys that aren’t quite real might well be the strangest. She exhales, flanks softening, as Darius approaches, and he takes a moment to rest a hand on her neck and run his fingers through her mane.

He couldn’t keep Efe alive, but Darius and Safi emerged from Mul Dura.

“Prickling!”

Darius exhales, wedges the mug under one armpit and the tea towel bag under the other, and reaches into the inside pocket of his coat for a piece of twine. Safi won’t much like it, but they won’t be cantering, so he knots the twine underneath the knot holding the tea towel closed and threads the twine through the near D-ring above the panel as a makeshift saddlebag, grunting as he forces his fingers to fumble through tying a tight knot thrice. Once done, he struggles to make his lips frame two simple words: “Thank you.”

Susan gives him a long glance, its corncob face too still for Darius to know where to begin in reading it. “I am unsure you should be doing this.”

The best answer of all is action, so Darius sighs, grabs the reins and pommel in his left hand, prays, takes the mug and cantle in the right and raises his left foot to the near stirrup. Safi doesn’t move, and while Darius’s head spins fast enough to make his gorge rise, he balances himself, grips the pommel in both hands and stays ahorse, dizzy, while he positions his right foot in the stirrup. He looks away from Susan as he gives himself as long he dares—not as much as he needs—to rest before he closes his calves against Safi’s flanks.

“I think I should—”

He’ll bet everything he owns that Susan finds March and Amelia, but there’s nothing Darius can do about that but ride. Safi circles the thistles and walks towards the gorse bush with more enthusiasm than her wont, ears flickering towards the monkeys, but they wait until she and Darius make the meadow—or whatever it is one calls an overgrown fire hazard that hasn’t been a lawn in a quarter century—before taking flight with chittering cries and a wash of musk, becoming circling blots of purple as they spiral higher and higher into clear blue streaked with wisps of white.

The belt mutters so softly Darius can’t make out its words.

If Susan goes—no. No. Darius exhales, drops the reins onto Safi’s withers and flips up his sleeves, baring harness, stocking and rings of scars. Knife next, pulled clean from its nest of tea towels. He picks a spot between older scars, presses his teeth into his lower lip and drags silver blade over skin, blood seeping over his lip as dry skin splits under the bite of jerking teeth before, with less care, he thrusts the knife back into its pocket. Cutting doesn’t hurt as much as it once did, but his eyes still water as he pulls the mug free from his armpit and cups it under the bleeding gash.

Amelia is wrong: he isn’t good at affinity.

Words and language are something he’s learnt over time, a collection of rules, and he’s good enough at them, for a boy and then a man who devoted his time to memorisation and recitation. They aren’t his art. This isn’t trying to recall the right synonym with dogs snarling at his heels only to forever come up short because anxiety never leaves him enough words for construct work—it is innate, it is natural, it demands only his energy as price and it has always been his. Osprey saw it when Darius was a child too young to fit in with the other students of the College. Eren Adalet saw it during their first lesson. Hamide Golzar saw it in the moments before her death. Miu Kadri saw it, one magic worker to another. He isn’t good, and, even now, Darius knows it.

It doesn’t make him a teacher, but he is a blood witch and magician both.

He closes his eyes, shifts the mug into his wood hand, dips his flesh fingertips into the mug and breathes.

Scent is memory: the faint lavender and cedar clinging to hir clothes, under the soot and gnomes permeating the tower, suggesting chests and herbal sachets. Soap—a plain fat soap with no added oils or fragrances. The slightly-sweet, oily aroma of a Western diet tainting skin and breath, strange after years in the Eastern Confederacy. All, though, overlaid by a chorus of pyrethrum, tea tree and eucalyptus. He breathes, for hir clothes and hair bear the same signatures as his own, hir skin smelling the same salt of watering eyes and running nose, and that scent binds them as close as any heartname, serves a tracking spell in the same way. Affinity, in lavender and pyrethrum, in stinging bites, in gnomes, in the saving of a life.

He opens his eyes, halts Safi and turns her, not needing to check the near-noon spring sun, until they face due south. Simple, then, to coat his fingers in blood, breathe in the one link between himself and the student, and whisper: “Seek sanguine skin’s shared scent.”

He raises his flesh hand, blood dripping down his fingers to smear his palm, and holds it at the four compass points. A breath of pyrethrum gusts his way, making his eyes water harder, as he holds his hand east. Southeast weakens the gust; northeast makes his nose run. Darius wipes his eyes on his shoulder and finds the most misery on a heading approximately northeast by east—a straight line down the back of the property to the creek and the scrubby foothills behind. He nods, tucks his flesh hand back in the mug, presses the mug against his right thigh and grabs reins and mane in the wood hand before nudging Safi onwards.

The pony takes five steps before the drag hits.

Blending witchcraft and script magic gives him a trade hard to match, but he pays for both in stinging cuts, blood loss and the sudden, overwhelming exhaustion—something akin to a few hours’ exertion all at once. Something that shouldn’t hit him as hard it does. He leans forwards, so lightheaded he floats in that horrific space where he’s as much like to vomit as he is faint, and lies over Safi’s neck, his heels down, his legs on the girth. She keeps walking; Darius closes his eyes and breathes in the clean smell of horse, resorting to the only salvation left in the mess of aching head and roiling stomach: multiplying. Ninety, eighty-five, eighty, seventy-five, eighty, seventy-five, seventy, sixty—oh, shades, he’s going to—no, fifty, fifty, forty, forty-five, thirty, thirty. Breathe. He’s survived many a bout of nausea without vomiting. He’s survived many a bout of dizziness without fainting. He’s survived many a—he groans into coarse black mane, because of course the buzzing on the edges of his skull starts, but all he can only try to stay ahorse while the waves crash through his head, just like every other time he’s had a seizure somewhere inconvenient. Thank the dead he doesn’t convulse. Breathe. Five, ten, fifteen…

His calves shift, nudging Safi onto a better line, and Darius just lets the belt ride him.

“If you can sit up, Dar, drink. It’ll help your headache.”

He grunts, but he doesn’t risk moving his head and setting off another bout of waves until he can hear running water. He levers himself up, dry-heaves once before swallowing, and clings to Safi’s mane until the dizziness is somewhat less hideous. They’re passing under the trees, a short line of river redgums just before the grass-studded bank dips towards the creek. Someone in the property’s past sanded the ford in on both sides, forming a beach and an easy crossing, as if one meant the track on the other side to become a road to somewhere—or maybe the beach was just a cool place, under the shade of the knotholed, mottled-grey gums, for nobility to while away a hot afternoon. It’s peaceful here, the creek brown and running high after the rain, gurgling as it sends leaves, twigs and bubbles past the long grey roots protruding from the rivergums. Every so often he hears a plop! sound that might be a fish or a frog overwhelming the enthusiastic chirping of crickets.

The monkeys, flying low, chatter and surge upwards in a flicker of wings and tails.

He releases mane and reaches for the flask as Safi picks her way down the gentle bank. Trees thicken on the other side, the track running almost east before vanishing behind a clump of acacia. He drops the flask in his lap and fumbles free the buckle and strap holding down the cap, trying to think. There’s nothing ahead but bush, hills, quartz, bush, mining camps, stockmen and bush: if the manor hadn’t belonged to several generations of March’s family, Darius would suspect it purposeful on March’s part to locate the College nowhere near anywhere. Only a few villages to the north and a few landholding neighbours, most of them running cattle on the plains to the west, call the eastern hills of Greenstone home. The hills themselves, the beginning of the Ishendra Ranges dividing Greenstone and the Sward from Astreut, are as dry as anywhere is in the Twinned Green. East is a good place to go, he supposes, if one wishes to avoid anyone, but if the student is heading towards Astreut, ze has a long walk ahead of hir before ze makes the pass. Why?

He takes a sip as Safi halts just in front of the water. “Nobody mentioned … the student? Where ze, hir people, come from?”

“No.” The belt whistles. “Your Doctor March and I spoke of you. Drink. I’m increasing your blood volume more than is wise.”

It seems one of life’s gravest cruelties that he always most needs to drink when he most feels like anything will cause his stomach to regurgitate his toenails. Darius grunts and takes a series of sips, as much as he dares, before capping the flask. Commenting on the rest just opens the doors to a whole new hell, so Darius grabs mane and closes his calves about Safi’s flanks. She shakes her head, eyeing the swift-running brown water, but walks forwards without argument. The water surges up to her hocks, deeper than Darius remembers, but the pony keeps walking. Halfway across it laps over the toes of Darius’s boots, shockingly cold, but the current isn’t strong enough to knock Safi off her feet. When the water drops below her belly, she breaks into a trot, and Darius lets her run, even though water drips down his face and arms as she splashes through the shallows. He just tightens his grip on her mane as Safi shakes herself and leans forwards as she surges up the bank, her tail swishing, his head spinning.

On this side, the trees are thin redgums scattered between ground-covering bracken fern, red-flowering weeping berrigan and the odd scrubby acacia. The shade in such open woodland is light at best, the ground spongy. Leaves, twigs and broken branches, the debris from days of rain, scatter the path and the gurgi alike. Safi slows to a walk and makes her way on the side of the path where the going is firmer; Darius sits back in the saddle, draws a breath and lets her pick her own way towards the fork—one a track wending east, the other a muddy rut headed south-east to where the acacia thickens.

“You’re going to ignore that, Dar?”

Question, based on the rising inflection at the end more than clear use of language, but nothing requires him to answer. Darius drops reins and mane, grabs the mug in wooden fingers and pulls his flesh hand out of the mug. The drying blood sticks to his skin, enough that he shudders, but he looks up, checks the sun and holds his hand east and northeast. Still northeast by east, and he guesses ze took the track for some way before veering off, but the track itself only shows the passing of a snake and a crow-sized bird. He tucks his hand back in the mug and nudges Safi past the rutted fork. Acacia grows almost straight across in places, clustered beside granite boulders; thick green, feathery gurgi growing in the middle suggests nobody has traversed it in some time. The path to the folly wasn’t good in Darius’s day and fifteen years have done it no kindness—and if Osprey no longer teaches, who uses it?

An isolated, unused building warded by the College’s best construct mage. It may be a good place to grow a seedling.

“Come find me, Liv.”

He jerks. No. Efe isn’t behind him. Not this, not now. Not while just sitting up in the saddle is taking excessive obstinacy.

“Dar. Please eat something.”

He looks down at wooden fingers. Fingers that work, after a fashion, because he can think the wooden sections into various movements, but they aren’t real fingers. He can’t feel what they touch. Wooden fingertips tell him nothing about texture, temperature or size. Perhaps, given enough time, he’ll learn to work despite this, but he’s spent enough time groping at blankets in the dark to know how much no sense of touch hampers him. “I can’t … I can’t grab something from the bag without seeing it. I’ll drop it.”

The silence of rustling leaves and walking, breathing horse screams in his ears.

“Does it matter if—”

“Come with me.”

Darius jerks his left elbow. “Go away! Just go away!”

“You left me, Liv. You left me.”

No. Efe Kadri, the real, once-breathing man, didn’t say those words. Efe was pushy, thoughtless and unaware of what it meant to be anything other than a privileged, similar nobleman, but he was at heart compassionate. He suffered from a lack of experience, not a lack of empathy. He proved that, over six years, and even Darius learnt to track what Efe meant when his eyes drifted away from Darius’s face or teeth.

“You left me to die, and now you won’t come with me.”

Safi comes to a staggering halt while her rider rocks in the saddle.

“Dar?”

“Go away.” He digs wooden, creaking simulacra into the meat of his left thigh, but they’re just rounded stubs with the suggestion of fingernails, artifice for appearance. They press and bruise but they can’t cut or tear like human nails. Useless for a blood witch. “Go!” Ninety, eighty-seven, eighty-four, eighty-one, seventy-eight, seventy-five, seventy-two, sixty-nine, sixty-six…

“You left me.”

“You left me, Efe! You and your adventures—you left me!”

Pain flowers in his forehead, a bruising ache that makes his eyes stream harder and jars his teeth. It isn’t until after the saddle sways out from under him, until after he regains his seat, until after the shock of the hurt and near fall settles some, until after he can again breathe, that Darius realises he leant forwards and smashed his head into Safi’s crest.

That she only threw her head and danced to the side is far better than he warrants.

Somehow, his shaking right hand still presses the mug against his thigh.

“Dar—”

The only language he has is a gurgling screech, loud enough that Safi jerks her head and shies, almost throwing him for the second time. Darius snatches up the reins in his wood hand, struggling to hold the mug, keep proper tension on the bit in a hand that feels nothing and keep his seat while the pony dances, but it isn’t distraction enough—or far too much. He can’t breathe. He can’t think. He’s just drowning under the crushing weight of everything.

Similar people have the miraculous ability to hang tags on emotions and lock them behind doors, organise them like Darius might someday organise a bookshelf by author and subject. Feelings might overwhelm and frighten, but they have those hanging paper labels, names written in ink.

He doesn’t have words to describe what it means to slip under the surface of everything unknown, to fall away from the pretence that he is in control of what he feels and how he acts.

It didn’t matter, once: the people in his life knew what he said when he tore fingernails through skin or slammed his head into the wall. They knew it was the only way he could give voice to the feeling of too many emotions to bear. Efe just grabbed two staves or branches or pillows, anything that might serve as a weapon, and nudged handle or shaft or corner into Darius’s hands. They gave him one thing to cling to, a raft on the surging waves. Efe didn’t ask, didn’t demand any language that wasn’t the thud of wood against wood. He fought until Darius found himself dizzy, exhausted and deflated, and if Darius knows that a same man with Efe’s height and weight pulled punches to keep from breaking his much smaller sparring partner fighting in the unthinking aggression of overwhelm, Efe never put that to words. He just tried to let Darius speak in safety.

Nor did Darius ever communicate the truth, known to both, that a magician and blood witch trained for combat can, if he loses awareness, obliterate his taller, stronger and magically-illiterate sparring partner.

“Dar. Breathe. Get your Safi walking forwards—loosen the rein, legs on, seat in the saddle. Breathe—from the diaphragm, not the throat. Dar. Breathe and get her walking forwards. Two things, that’s all. Dar. Take a proper breath. We both know your Ayako Yuzuki taught you how to breathe!”

He doesn’t know for how long the belt speaks before its words register. He sits forwards on a jigging horse, Safi and Darius alike tugging at the reins, Darius gasping in a way that will have the Master whacking him across the buttocks with their favourite stave. It’s wrong, it’s all wrong: doesn’t he know better than to fight his mount this way?

Darius exhales, looks down at his hand, releases the reins until the buckle slips between wooden thumb and pointer finger, and sits back in the saddle, his legs resting on the girth. Safi shudders, but she moves forwards in a longer stride, and if the trot makes his head spin, it’s better than the jig. He draws a proper breath and softens his spine, sitting the trot—grateful, not for the first time, that Efe bought him such a smooth-gaited mount. Grateful and annoyed both, despite the hypocrisy of long-faded anger, that the belt has left him to live this mess.

He doesn’t try to slow her. He just shifts his heels until the stirrup irons once again rest under the balls of his feet and lets them both run out their nerves.

Seventeen, thirty-four, fifty-one, sixty-eight, eighty-five…

The belt waits until Safi sighs, stretches her neck low and falls back into a swinging walk. “Drink, Dar.”

“He—he—”

“I doubt it’s reasonable,” the belt says, gliding over syllables in an oddly soft voice, “to expect you to cope when you shouldn’t by rights be ahorse. Drink.” It pauses while Darius drops the reins and grabs the flask. “You might talk about this to your Doctor March.”

Talk. Darius grunts, flips open the cap and drinks just to look as though he isn’t refusing to answer. It’s all too much, so he counts five times between each sip: one hundred and nineteen, one hundred and twelve, one hundred and five, ninety-eight, ninety-one … It doesn’t stop the headache, doesn’t stop the giddiness, doesn’t stop the juddering shakiness in his limbs, but it edges him a little further away from the overwhelm. After ten sips, he caps the flask and tugs his hand—splashed up to the wrist with sticky, congealing blood—out of the mug. Too far east, but his eyes stream from the pyrethrum. He angles Safi into the softer ground between the thin trees—more acacia between tall, pillar-like mottled-bark messmate—and wonders how to apologise to a horse. She mouths the bit, occasionally wiping green foam against her forelegs, far more collected than he. But if Darius can’t—shades, he hurt his horse, a better friend to him than most humans. How can he teach if he’s like this? How can he risk being in the classroom if he doesn’t know what he might do in overwhelm? True, students do the same, but he’s the teacher: it’s his job to manage them, not the reverse!

Does March know, really know, how much Darius isn’t the child that left the College? Does March know what Darius can do with magic and combat training when he loses himself? Does March know how Hamide Golzar died? Does March know what Mul Dura looked like when Darius left the keep a bloody cairn to a Lord’s ambition?

“Dar. Breathe. Look out for branches and wombat holes.”

He should know that, but he can’t think, not about the right sorts of things.

It was so easy, last night. Why was last night so simple when he can’t handle the basics of riding, dressing and thinking today?

“Breathe, Dar.”

“I can’t. I can’t—I can’t do this—”

A cracking branch makes him turn his head. Not under Safi’s hooves, but off to the right where the acacia thickens, as though a human veered towards the closest cover available when ze heard a horse, Darius and the belt. A cracking branch, running feet and gasping breaths.

Darius tosses the mug into a patch of grey and brown gurgi, takes the buckle of the reins in his wood hand and the mane in his bloody right, brushes his right heel against Safi’s flank and nudges her into a trot. She surges forwards, despite the fact her hooves sink into the ground, and Darius sits deep in the saddle, letting his lower back absorb each change in diagonal, trying to slow his gasping breaths. There’s no need to force his way through the acacia; he just circles it, the flickering flashes of cinnabar, scarlet and viridian through the yellow-blossoming shrubs indicating the presence of a running human.

He reaches the end of the thicket, the open woodland stretching on in an expanse of gurgi-surrounded messmate, in time to see a figure dart backwards into the shelter of the flurry of small green leaves and fluffy yellow flowers.

Shades. What to do? Darius settles back in the saddle, rubs his right hand over his forehead and grimaces at the tackiness. Safi comes to a clean halt, jerking her head against the bit in protest. If ze’s new, ze isn’t likely to know much sign. Speaking, then—but he’s so tired he struggles to think about anything other than resting his head against Safi’s black mane. “Student. Come out? Please?”

“You’re slurring, Dar. And hir name is Tes.”

He knows the belt means to help, that its ability to remember names has saved his life on several occasions, but he wants to scream. No, he can’t remember. Yes, he’s probably slurring, but he’s tired and moving his tongue, lips and cheeks in ways that other people understand is a thousand times harder when he just wants to drop to the ground and close his eyes. “It won’t stay in—”

A cry too high and sharp for Darius to parse sounds a moment before the rustling and a scowling, flushed, red-haired student ducks under a branch and comes marching out in a fall of leaves and blossoms, hazel eyes glaring at Darius. Full skirts and blouse, the same as ze wore last night, everything neatly tucked in, all skin but that of hir hands, neck and face covered by long sleeves, sheepskin boots and high collar. Quite proper, if not for the fact that ze stomps hir boots into the soft ground, leaving thick tracks in mud and grass already softened by Safi’s hooves. Ze’s taller than he but short by another man’s reckoning, broad, well-muscled under hir blouse, sturdy. Unlike the first time they met, ze doesn’t wear a pack: ze made do with two blankets, straps and some hasty stitching. A belt sits knotted around hir waist, bearing several dangling pouches made from handkerchiefs and a grey-washed handtowel along with a mug, a wooden spoon and a small knife. Ze clanks as ze walks, hir arms swinging, and Darius guesses from the stare and pace that hir colour isn’t solely caused by a trek through the acacia. Anger. Because he followed?

Brown freckles and scabbed bites lie scattered over hir pale skin in galactic whorls, covering hir nose, cheeks, forehead, neck and hands.

“What are you doing here? You!” Hir voice, already the singing accent of the Wold, surges up to a register that will do a soprano proud. “You shouldn’t be here! You shouldn’t!

“Not … not disagreeing.” Darius looks down at his hands, but they offer up nothing in the way of useful words. Dismounting is a risk, because if ze runs he’ll struggle to remount and pursue, but it might be easier to talk if he doesn’t have to direct so much energy into staying upright. “But … wording. Please?”

Hir lips tremble; hir eyes rest on Darius’s face before swinging away. “I don’t … I don’t understand. I’m sorry. I don’t hear the words.”

“He says he doesn’t disagree, which is unusual self-awareness from my Dar, I must say, and he’s asking if you’ll talk. I’d take it as a favour to me if you would, Tes.” The belt sighs. “Without me he wouldn’t be conscious, but he hasn’t exactly given me a lot to work with. Don’t panic—most people can’t understand him when he slurs. I’ve just had a lot of practice.”

He doesn’t have the language to even begin in answering that, so Darius shucks his stirrups, grabs the pommel in his left hand and the cantle in his right, prays and dismounts. He doesn’t faint, although that has more to do with grabbing the near stirrup as his knees buckle, and he stands there, hanging from the saddle, waiting for the inevitable.

The student frowns, scans the closest trees as if in search of another person, turns hir head back to Darius, stares. That they stand in open bush makes the conclusion easier, and as reactions go, hirs is mild … which says something about the College that a talking item of clothing soon becomes only slightly extraordinary. “You—it isn’t you! But it’s from you! Speaking!

“Belt.” Darius turns to lean against the saddle, freeing his wood hand to fold back sleeves and bare the strip of leather entwined in several thick coils around his right elbow. “Belt. Talking sword belt. Eldritch.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m a talking, magical sword belt,” the belt says. “Dar is my human.”

The student purses hir lips, hir thick red brows furrowed. The left is flat, the right curved, lending hir a somewhat quizzical appearance. “It talks, but you wanted it when—and you aren’t wearing it as a belt, are you? So, it doesn’t just talk, and I don’t know why a soldier would want a talking belt—wouldn’t it just be annoying? Distracting? What else does it—you wanted it when you were—how, then? How does a strip of leather—does it cure you or just make you feel better? But then, how does it talk, so the—” Ze stops, stares at hir mud-slathered boots. “I’m sorry. I’m going, anyway. I’m going.”

There’s a thousand things to say and Darius can’t find the words for any of them. One word, though. He shakes his sleeves back into position. Surely, he can say one word slowly and carefully enough to be comprehensible? “Where?”

Ze presses hir lips together, draws a breath and rolls hir shoulders back before turning back towards the acacia. Like his own, hir dry skin sloughs in the middle of hir bottom lip. “You shouldn’t be here, but I’m going. I have to go.”

Where are you going?”

Hir face is blank. He knows that incomprehension as the stare one wears when one doesn’t understand and is too afraid to ask Darius to repeat himself.

The belt, for good and ill, seldom needs prompting in offering translations. “He wants to know where you’re going, Tes.”

The student stands, hir weight shifted to one hip and hir watering eyes resting on Darius, although fixed on his chest and arms, not his face. “I’m going.”

Ze’s said that several times now without accompanying momentum. Nowhere, then. Somewhere that isn’t here. Hir posture suggests a readiness to flight, hir words curiosity. Ze’s already shown thoughtfulness and observation, and he wonders if ze knows ze sits in two minds about leaving something that interests hir. He draws a breath. This isn’t going anywhere. What, then? Will a question make hir stay a moment? There’s a reason March answers questions with more questions! “Most people … don’t think like that, about the belt. Why do you think it shouldn’t talk?”

Hir left boot wears a divot into the earth. “I don’t understand!”

The belt laughs, a bright, ringing chortle that always makes Darius ponder the various ways of destroying leather. “He’s intrigued by your studious approach to eldritch curiosities and wants to know what your rationale is behind thinking my speaking a distraction. Would you do me the favour of sitting and talking? That means my Dar can sit, you see. I’d rather him sit before he faints. Dar, sit down and drink.”

That isn’t close to what he said, but saying as much won’t help and the belt knows it.

It also isn’t wrong.

Darius sighs, takes the reins and threads the buckle over the near stirrup iron. “He sits, not him sit. I think? I don’t…” Safi rubs her face against his back as he unties the lead rope and slipknots the end around the closest low branch of a tree not too close to that of the monkeys. “Stand.”

Safi gives him a long, baleful look before shifting her weight to rest her off hind.

Darius takes a single step backwards and sits in a way most will construe as falling.

The student sways—the unconscious, natural movement of the divergent, weight moving idly from foot to foot. “I’m going.”

He unbuckles the flask cap, tugs the shoulder strap forwards to give himself more room and raises the flask to his lips. The student stands, twisting one toe into the dirt. Ze might bolt if he gives hir reason, but he’s got time. Ze hasn’t run yet. Darius takes another sip, wondering what ze might say if he gives hir space to speak, and a moment of quiet gives him time to try and find his way to meaningful language.

Shades, though. Talking. He’s supposed to be a teacher, but he slurs when he’s tired or stressed and he has only one flesh hand with which to sign a two-handed language. March, Amelia, Susan, the Professors and his family know how to hear Darius, and it never occurred to him in talking with them that the students won’t have that history, that there will be times in the classroom where he cannot communicate. Why didn’t Darius think about that? Why didn’t March think about that?

Above them, a third monkey lands on the branch occupied by the original pair halfway up the tallest messmate, the three staring down at the goings-on below.

He realises he’s taken too long when ze stops swaying and speaks: “You shouldn’t be here.”

Darius stares down at the flask in his hands. He doesn’t disagree. Can’t disagree. He should be back in the infirmary, being useless. A man so close to overwhelm, a man struggling to speak, is the last person with whom the student should have this conversation. Yes, he came from obligation, but what good is obligation when he can’t carry it out?

The student turns and walks back toward the acacia.

“Why is it that you spent the last few years demanding that kings and tyrants and soldiers listen to you, even if you speak in unconventional ways, but now you can’t even try to speak to one of your own? Did you lose your brain with your hand?” The belt’s ringing voice takes on a sing-song note, a metallic mimicry of the student’s high tones. “I am right here, numbskull. I always have been. Do you remember what you said to me the day you met Efe?”

The belt speaks in Siyan, a language as familiar to him as his own marked skin, yet strange in this place of open woodland and soft, moist earth.

The day he met Efe … no, he doesn’t remember. Odd, how that day seems even more long ago than Darius’s time here at the College. Efe insulted Darius in their first conversation, and while the second conversation ended better, it took a long time before Darius thought of Efe as a friend, not an annoyance. How many arguments did they have, those first weeks? How many times did Darius ride away from Efe because he couldn’t take Efe’s trying to talk out everything? How often did Darius lose the ability to explain in words just how Efe’s thoughtless flirting hurt him? He signed in speechless fury, and Efe didn’t know sign then, either, so the belt … the belt translated, just like it has done when needed for much of his life.

No different, in truth, to how the Professors Roxleigh teach together.

He exhales and caps the flask. No, March didn’t think about it, because he doesn’t see this as a problem. March doesn’t care about words or hands or madness, and while there’s three watching monkeys in the tree above, there’s only three monkeys. No March, no Amelia, no Faiza, no Professors, all five of them more than capable of doing this job, all five of them absent. Doesn’t that mean he expects Darius to figure this out?

He didn’t hesitate in killing the Lord but he hesitates now in helping a person who needs it.

No.

A damp, muddy branch, the raw splintering at the thickest end suggesting it a victim to the weather, rests just within his reach. Thin at one end, not quite tall enough for a staff, covered with peeling bark. Good enough. Darius grabs the thin end, plants the splintering end into the dirt and levers himself to his feet. His head spins, but he leans on the branch, refusing to give himself time to adjust before staggering forwards. “You! Student—”

“Tes.”

He can’t see hir: acacia, blue sky, watching monkeys, messmate, bracken fern. He walks towards the shrubs, following hir returning footsteps, but there’s no movement ahead. Just a carpet of fallen yellow blossoms over the mess of sticks, gurgi and mud.

“Tes! Tes!” He stops, draws a breath. He can’t shout and walk all at once when he’s this dizzy. “You shouldn’t have been in the tower. I shouldn’t have lost my hand. Efe shouldn’t be dead. Should … it’s nothing, nothing. I’m here. You’re here. That’s everything. And you … you want someone to follow you. You know it. I know it, because I’m running, too. So I’m following.”

The belt, for a wonder, repeats every word just as Darius spoke it.

Should he go back to Safi? Tes hasn’t had time to go far, but ze can move faster than he can. He stops, unsure, and shifts the branch into his wood hand before plucking the knife from his pocket with his right. He can track hir easily enough, following boot prints into the thicket, but it might be quicker and less exhausting to send his voice—or that of the belt—after hir instead of following.

He grasps the handle in his teeth while he pulls back his sleeves, baring the congealed cut and dribbles of drying blood soaking his inner forearm, the stocking and the harness. One more working. Well, he has the belt. He’ll be … probably not fine. Alive. He draws a breath and runs the blade over the encrusted gash, eyes watering as the edges part to let another, larger, trickle of crimson spill out over his brown skin—

“No! What are you doing? No, stop—what—stop!

Tes tears out of the closest clump of acacia, holding hir muddied skirts up from hir boots as ze bolts across the gurgi, red-faced and panting, hir uneven, short-cropped red hair fluttering about hir scalp. Ze looks, he thinks, as though ze cut hir hair by holding it in a tail with one hand and hacking it with the other. Ze barrels into him, pulling a handkerchief free from one of hir many belt pouches, and Darius is far too taken aback to stop hir yanking the knife from his fingers and tossing it to the ground. Ze grabs his forearm in firm fingers and presses hir cloth to the cut, the cream, lace-trimmed square turning a vivid scarlet, but somehow it doesn’t seem as red as Tes’s face and hair.

“Why, why would you—what’s wrong with you? Why are you so, so—why are you doing this? Why?

“Magic.” Darius speaks as slowly as he can, given that he has a student frantically pressing a handkerchief into his arm. Why is ze doing that? “It isn’t that deep.”

“I know it’s magic! I saw you, in the bath! It’s magic because it’s the only thing, the only reason that’s sensible! But this, this isn’t sensible!” Hir voice climbs into a shriek that sears Darius’s ears. “Why are you doing this? You shouldn’t be here, you shouldn’t be doing this, not for me, you’re…”

He understands just as Tes collapses, sobbing, into his chest.

“You got me hurt.” Breathe. Breathe. He can endure this. He won’t go into overwhelm. He won’t hurt hir. Breathe. “Well … partly hurt. You could’ve killed me, March, you, other students, because the tick gnomes are dangerous, and now … now you can’t be around people, people you care about, people who’ve hurt themselves for you, because you’re dangerous, yes? Because you’re human. Because you make mistakes, errors of knowledge, errors of judgement, because … because you’re just human. Doesn’t matter that the mistake isn’t really yours. Doesn’t matter that I chose to come, chose magic, chose—doesn’t matter.” Breathe, but he can’t breathe, can’t stop the gasping, can’t halt the trembling in his limbs or the pressure on his skin, can’t ignore the flooding feeling of hir clothes, hir smell of eucalyptus and pyrethrum and mud and acacia, the warmth of hir bewildered tears, the mug digging into his thigh. Can’t. “It doesn’t matter, what they say, because you made the mistake, yes? It doesn’t … please, please, I can’t … I can’t the … let go.” Breathe. Don’t hurt hir. Don’t push hir away. He can’t hurt hir. “It doesn’t…”

He knows the sounds he makes aren’t words.

Efe. Efe knows what he’s saying. Where’s Efe?

The belt speaks, but it’s all a roar in his ears, wild and meaningless.

All he knows is that he’s moving, that he holds a stick in his hands and he’s slamming it at something hard, slamming it so the person touching him goes away, slamming it into something that makes the stick crack and shatter—and then he’s on the ground, hands on his knees, rocking back and forth. Fingers, real and fake, driven into trousers and skin, because if he holds his knees he can’t, won’t hurt anyone else. Hold and wait. Breathe. He knew how to breathe once; now he can’t remember.

He hears nothing but silence from behind him.

Darius just grips his knees and waits for the world to make sense.

“I didn’t mean—I’m sorry, sir, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean it! I didn’t!”

Tes sits on the ground, skirts pulled over hir knees, hir hands fisted, tears flooding down hir scarlet cheeks and watering the broken gurgi underfoot.

Behind hir, mud and fresh broken bark scar the trunk of a young, whippy messmate.

He hit the tree.

Darius slumps down onto his shoulder. The damp earth saturates his coat, but the limb-shaking relief renders all else irrelevant. He hit the tree. “Touch … touching. I’m not good with the, and today … everything too much today. Everything. I used … my, my partner, Efe. He used to help me. Give me space to … fight it out? I don’t have that anymore. Maybe … maybe I need it. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just … I can’t.”

The belt, for some reason, translates this as is.

Tes jerks hir head so hard Darius can’t understand why ze isn’t in pain. “Professor March said not to touch people. He said. I forgot. I…” Ze stops and presses hir lips together, but that doesn’t hold back the tears. Ze shakes as ze weeps, shoulders and chest, and Darius can’t think of anything else but Aysun crying over her brother’s pyre. “I’m always making mistakes! I can’t do anything but hurt people! I shouldn’t be here, but…”

March has words for this sort of thing, words that make people feel better—and words that didn’t touch Darius in the kitchen. Why should something that doesn’t help him help Tes? Efe didn’t show his reassurance and love in words; he showed it in his willingness to pick up a staff and face down an overwhelmed magician. What does Tes need from Darius, then? Reassurance, comfort, connection. Things hard to receive when one is too busy running. So, then, ze needs somewhere to put the fear and energy that made hir run. Somewhere safe to fall apart.

“Grab a stick. Hit a tree. Move.” Darius sighs and rolls onto his back. The ground is wet and cold. It bothers him less than it should. “Hit the tree. It doesn’t care. Hit it, because sometimes … you just need to hit a tree. Be. Feel.” He exhales. Nineteen, thirty-eight, fifty-seven. “Please.”

Tes stares at him, lips parted.

“Pick up your stick, hit a tree. Go.”

“I don’t understand!” Hir chest heaves in short, unsteady gasps. “Why are you doing this?”

Darius cups his right hand under his head. Why is he doing this? Because he’s here, and because this is his job, and because even though he’s lying on his back in the dirt, this is right in a way bed isn’t. It isn’t danger, not of the sort that made him safe and gave him scars. It isn’t his life, the road, Efe, everything that mattered. It isn’t obligation. It’s right.

“Because … you’re meant to be here. The College. You want to run. Move instead. Hit the tree, because you made a mistake, because you’re going to come back and make different mistakes. You’re going to come back with me, and we’ll make more mistakes. So learn, right now, when you want to run … take a stick and hit the tree instead. Because you can’t run from you. You can’t. I’ve tried, Tes. I’ve tried, and you can’t. So don’t.” He stops, presses his lips together, swallows, gives the belt time enough to speak. “I can’t—I can’t tell you, words, the kinds of words that make someone feel better. I don’t have them. All I know is that … you can’t run from you. Hit the tree instead.”

Why the belt translates his choppy, muddled, unscripted words correctly, Darius doesn’t know.

Why the belt whistles as it does so, he doesn’t want to know.

Tes sways. Hir cheeks are red and hir neck is pale and sallow, strange contrasts in colour. “I hurt you.”

Some part of Darius wants to laugh. “So? You leave, you’re going to be less. You shouldn’t be less than you are. You should be here, learning, becoming more. Don’t be less. Be here.” He exhales and waits for the belt, but even that amount of time doesn’t let him find the right words. He doesn’t care. “I’m deciding. I’m not running. I’ll follow you. When you run, I’ll follow you, Tes. I’ll follow you and take us back home.”

Ze frowns, reaches forwards for a whippy branch and examines it for a long moment before nodding, grabbing hir skirts in hir hands and scrambling to hir feet to face the battered tree.

Tes whacks the bough into the trunk so hard Safi shies and three pieces of broken wood fall into the mud.

The belt whistles up a waltz.

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